Ted Leo Brings Emotional New Solo Material (And a Bigger Band) to Grog Shop's 25th Anniversary Week

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PHOTO BY MINDY TUCKER
  • Photo by Mindy Tucker
Ted Leo has always been an emotive songwriting, flashing his heart on his sleeve and confronting the ills and celebrations of a country (and personal identity) in constant crisis. And in doing so, he's always had his band, The Pharmacists, in tow. Earlier this month, Leo dropped his first solo outing. It's a doozy in classic Ted Leo style.

Opening with the droning chords and eerie, anticipatory lyrics, the album slips into the uncomfortably shifting sands that 2017 has become known for. From there, though, The Hanged Man moves into more classic-sounding Leo territory: a power-pop/post-punk amalgam threaded with impassioned pleas for the struggle. "I used to believe in something, like a magical chemical spark," Leo sings on the second cut. "I used to believe we could free it now, and I want to believe that alone in your arms again."

There's disillusionment, sure, but there's hope throughout this new album. It's a multifaceted work that's been percolating in Leo's world for years now, and he's settling in to this new exciting stage in his career.

"I've been writing songs that wound up on this record since really before we completed the last record," Leo says. "There are a couple of songs that were written as long as nine years ago, which is crazy to think about." The end result of those years was a stack of some 30 songs, 14 of which made it onto The Hanged Man. "Early on in the process, my idea was almost diametrically opposed to what I wound up with. Really early on, what I wanted to do was write a super stripped down, like 'My Aim is True'-sounding ... kind of power pop record. What I wound up with was a baroque, you know, very lush and at times very weird kind of power pop record."

Indeed, the album is a rollercoaster of mood and sonic exploration. Both the term "baroque" and Leo's inclinations toward power pop are evident throughout even a cursory listen. Tunes like "Run to the City" blend Leo's sharper punk instincts with Paul Westerbergish song structure. The Hanged Man was recorded mostly at Leo's Rhode Island home, and you can hear the results of a man truly having fun with his creative work throughout the collection of songs.

"You're Like Me," released me as an early single, sounds most like Leo's catalog, led by a lone, fuzzed-out electric guitar and a cool wave of reverb.

While this fall tour is in support of Leo's solo outing, he'll have his band in tow — along with a few additions. Most of Leo's stuff has been informed by the band's live presence; The Brutalist Bricks or Shake the Sheets have a raw energy that's not always present on The Hanged Man. (This album was written and recorded as the newfound producer in Leo was learning about the recording process. It's very much a studio album.) But as he hits the road — and comes to Cleveland this weekend — Leo will be able to ignite his new stuff in the same way he's done for previous songs.

The band this fall will be bigger than usual. Leo's backed by the Pharmacists, plus another guitarist and a sax player (who appeared on The Hanged Man). "It has really breathed a new life into a lot of the older songs for me," Leo says. Plus, the bigger band will be able to neatly reproduce the sounds from this current record.

This weekend's crowd can expect a bit of the old-school Ted Leo sound and the new, which will keep things spirited and refreshing in an increasingly alarming world.

"Despite this being, you know, not an immediately seriously fast punk record or anything, there's actually quite a lot of politics on this record," Leo says, noting that four tunes were written in the final months of production (after the 2016 presidential election). Still, he adds, these are difficult days: “So much of what has gone on is sort of hard to write about, because it’s almost too heavy and I can’t treat it lightly. But at the same time, it’s almost too dumb and insane, and I can’t actually give it the depth that I want to give what I write about politically.

“If you’d asked me in 2008, ‘Would Donald Trump be president?’ and ‘Would I have a saxophone player in the band?'” Leo posited, laughing, “I’d have said no.”

Leo comes to the Grog Shop Sept. 23 as part of the venue's 25th anniversary celebrations. Showtime is 9 p.m., with Obnox and Falling Stars opening. Tickets are $16 this week; $18 on the day of the show.

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